"To all of the customers of the local florist who got sneezing powder in their flowers last Tuesday, I apologize. You were really not the intended victims. I just wanted to make you angry at the florist, my stingy employer. I wasn’t trying to hurt you." —Bill
"I’m sorry. You were waiting for the car to get out of the parking place so you could back in. I slid in frontward—I had to do this because I was desperate to get into the store so I could use the men’s room, and there were no other spaces. My apologies. I hope you read this and understand." —Driver of gray Honda.
"To all my high school classmates, I am so sorry for those mornings when I came to school without brushing my teeth. I don’t know where I got the idea that if I didn’t eat, I didn’t need to brush. I know you tried to hint, but I didn’t 'get it'."
"For all the things that happened to you as a kid that I never knew about. Maybe you were told not to tell me, but I should have been there for you, and you should have been able to tell me anything. For the fact that you weren’t and I wasn’t, I am truly sorry." —Mom
Recently, I discovered several websites on which people can anonymously post apologies like those above. Some who post on these sites apparently don’t know how to reach those they have wronged. In the case of others, the person wronged is deceased. Still others seem unwilling or not yet prepared to apologize directly to the individuals. Some of the postings are humorous; some are far more weighty. I think all of us can find a part of ourselves in one of them.
In a sermon called “To Whom Much is Forgiven,” twentieth-century existentialist theologian Paul Tillich offers a perspective that speaks to people such as the above, and to all of us. Tillich wrote, “Forgiveness is an answer, the divine answer, to the question implied in our existence” (The New Being [New York: Scribner’s, 1955] ).
I would suggest, however, that there are least three questions “implied in our existence,” to which forgiveness is God’s answer. For example, in the apology of the mother, if you are the child who has been wounded, who perhaps experienced abuse when you were little, and whose mother did nothing to stop it, the question implied is How do I keep bitterness, anger, hate, or the desire for revenge from consuming me? If you are the mother who feels great guilt because you didn’t step in to stop the abuse, there are perhaps two questions implied: How can I be reconciled to the one I wronged? and How can my burden of guilt be removed?
Every one of us asks questions like these, and God’s answer to each of them is forgiveness. While abuse may not have been a part of our story, at some point we’ve been wronged, at some point we’ve failed to intervene to stop someone else from being wronged, and in one way or another we’ve all wronged others. If we are not to spend our lives stumbling in the dark as wounded, angry human beings, we must know and carry with us the answer--God’s answer: forgiveness.
More than any other world religion, Christianity teaches, preaches, veritably shouts forgiveness. Yes, some of our preachers dwell too long on guilt, and consequently many see Christianity as primarily a religion of guilt. That is unfortunate, for a Christianity obsessed with guilt is no Christianity. Christianity is a faith whose central focus is not guilt, but grace, redemption, healing, forgiveness, and mercy.
But the process of forgiveness begins with our awareness and understanding of sin, for if we are not aware of our sin, we go on living self-absorbed lives while hurting others. So the purpose of preaching and learning about sin is to open the door to healing!
Doctors study medicine not so they can go around telling people they are sick, but so they can heal those who are sick, and the healing can’t start until patients are willing to admit they are sick. Once patients admit this, there is the important task of the diagnosis, which then makes possible the cure. So it is with Christianity. We speak about sin in an attempt to diagnose the spiritual malady that afflicts us all. My goal, then, is not to accuse you of being, or even to tell you that, you are sick, but to offer you the medicine that makes you well. It’s not simply to ask you the question, but to lead you to the answer. Yes, we’re all sinners, and yes, this is a serious issue, but God is a God of grace and mercy.
God wants to relieve us of the burden that comes with a life of sin, and to set our feet back on the right path.
This is the extravagant grace that is God’s heart and character. It is something we know in our heads, and yet we often struggle to accept it in our hearts. We sometimes fail to understand and experience God’s grace, which is offered freely to us, continuing to carry burdens of separation or guilt that God has already sought to remove.
Each of us has done things we regret and cannot change. We cringe or even cry when we think of them. And yet often we carry these burdens unnecessarily. We fail to trust that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and that “as far as the east is from the west, so far shall he remove our sins from us.” Through it all, God’s message to us remains the same: Stop carrying the burden yourself. Let me take it. Be reconciled to me.
This is the thing to remember: God has already agreed to that reconciliation. Tillich, in another of his sermons, said that the bottom line of faith is accepting God’s acceptance of you. When you turn to God and long to be with him, he is already reaching out, waiting for you with open arms. God has done everything necessary for your forgiveness, and he offers that forgiveness freely. All you have to do to gain this grace—grace that came at such a terrific price—is to accept it.
The choice is yours. You can continue to carry the burden of your sins, or you can allow the Lord to take it from you and set you free, as he wants to do.
Some of you live in grace, not really struggling with past sins. You have given them to God and don’t think about them. You may just need to say, “Lord, for the things I did this past week that took me from the path, and for the ways I failed to do what you wanted me to do, please forgive me.” Then simply trust in his grace.
But others of you are carrying heavy burdens from the past. God knows them. Christ has already suffered for them. He stands there, longing to take you into his arms. He’s saying to you, “Please let them go. Please give them to me.”
Trust that Jesus has already borne your sins on the cross, and that “as far as the east is from the west, so far shall the Lord remove your sin from you.” Know that you can come away from the encounter with joy in your heart and a spring in your step, loved, forgiven, and free.
After all, that is the good news of the Christian gospel.
This article is excerpted from Adam Hamilton's new book, Forgiveness: Finding Peace through Letting Go. Used by permission.